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Arguing in front of your children can make them confused by emotions, study says

A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that children who report coming from a house of high parental conflict, and felt threatened by the arguments, are unable to read the emotions of people in a neutral pose.
A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that children who report coming from a house of high parental conflict, and felt threatened by the arguments, are unable to read the emotions of people in a neutral pose. Creative Commons

The next argument you have in front of a child could leave them emotionally damaged.

More specifically, children who said they see their parents fight often — and feel threatened by the conflict — have more trouble identifying the emotions of other people, according to a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. A child’s level of shyness also plays a role in their ability to discern what another person is feeling.

Researchers studied 99 children who ranged from 9 to 11 years old, the study says, and asked them to describe the level of parental conflict in their home and how threatened it made them feel. The kids’ mothers also gauged how shy their children are.

Then the children were presented with images of couples, the study says, and had to explain what emotions the people were feeling.

The couples in the pictures were either in a happy, angry or neutral pose.

It turned out that children who reported high conflict among their parents were able to accurately read happy and angry feelings — but struggled to do the same for those in a neutral pose. Those from low conflict homes accurately described all three types of emotions.

Shy children had trouble reading the emotions of a couple in a neutral pose, the study found, no matter the level of conflict among their parents. But those reserved kids who said their parents fought often had the hardest time making sense of the neutral pictures.

This study is one of the first to examine how a child’s shyness affects ability to read the feelings of others, according to Business Standard.

Alice Schermerhorn, lead author of the study, told Business Standard that her study shows just how damaging daily bickering can be for kids.

“The message is clear: Even low-level adversity like parental conflict isn’t good for kids,” said the assistant professor from the University of Vermont.

Schermerhorn said in an interview with Newswise she has two theories why for those children might be unable to process the emotions of other people.

It could be that the constant fighting makes children “hypervigilant,” which could “lead them to interpret neutral expressions as angry ones or may simply present greater processing challenges,” she told Newswise. Schermerhorn said her second theory is that children who feel uncomfortable around arguing parents might only take notice of particularly strong emotions.

“They may be more tuned into angry interactions, which could be a cue for them to retreat to their room, or happy ones, which could signal that their parents are available to them,” she said. “Neutral interactions don’t offer much information, so they may not value them or learn to recognize them.”

Schermerhorn has some advice for parents, who she said should help “children get the message that, even when they argue, parents care about each other and can work things out.”

“Parents of shy children,” she told Newswise, “need to be especially thoughtful about how they express conflict.”

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